A guide from Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard O.Carm
As we saw on the previous page, the second part of Jesus' encounter with the Jews opens in verse 31.
This second part is read over these two days: Wednesday's reading therefore is Jn 8,31-42 and Thursday's Jn 8,51-59. As a result, verses 43-50 are omitted. They were probably regarded as too strong for the average congregation, as we will see.
In Jn 8,30, we are told that many Jews believed in Jesus. Now in Jn 8,31, Jesus seeks to take them further and explore whether they have really come to the full commitment that believing in Jesus require. Thus the key word in verse 31 is "If..."
However, Jesus quickly takes them further than they are willing to go so the conversation breaks into acrimony.
The whole of Jn 8,31-58 is a conversation, a succession of statements and answers. The RNJB layout gives a good overall view of the conversation by its layout. Jesus' words are indented showing how the conversation is dominated by his words. In a way it is not really a conversation at all.
It is common to break this conversation into two at verse 47. It is certainly noticeable that up to that point Jesus says and the Jews answer. Verse 48 then reads "The Jews answered and said" and thereafter take the inititiative: they say, Jesus answered. I would not though make too much of this; it is better to follow the conversation through its ups and downs towards its conclusion, that final answer of the Jews seeking to stone Jesus (8,59).
Before wending our way through the conversation, it is as well to note the words which underpin the discussion.
Father has already occured seven times in the first part as the Father of Jesus. In this second part, the Father of Jesus is mentioned only three times (8,38.49.54).
The father of the Jews though occurs seven times (8,220.127.116.11.42.43.56).
Abraham is mentioned no less than twelve times. Relating to Abraham is clearly an important theme of this second part.
Jn 8,31-38: The first stage of the conversation involves seeking true freedom. Jesus' opening statement stresses the importance of remaining in his word. "Remain" is an important word in this Gospel, explored especially in chapter 15. It is by remaining in his word that they can be his disciples, learners who seek the truth, the revelation of God which can only come through Jesus. There lies true freedom.
The Jews inevitably misunderstand in verse 33 and see this as a worldly freedom, appropriate for the descendants of Abraham even though they are effectly slaves to the Romans.
Jesus then seeks to draw them deeper and understand what he is saying beginning with a formal "Amen, amen, I say to you" in verse 34. As usual in this Gospel, sin is the refusal to believe in Jesus and accept his claims to be the unique revealer of God, see Jn 15,15.
Jesus then responds to their claim to be descended from Abraham but if they were truly his descendents then they would accept Jesus' word as listening to to the word of the Father.
Jn 8,39-47: The Jews now insist in verse 39 that Abraham is their father having misunderstood the previous verse about the Father of Jesus. To this, Jesus restates what he has just said in verses 37 and 38. At this point, the stark contrast is made between God, the Father of Jesus, and the devil, the father of the Jews, verses 42-47.
The devil is the opposite of God. This is an "either...choice" and while the Jews claim God to be their father through Abraham, in practice they are denying that because they refuse to accept the word of Jesus, verse 43.
The terms used to speak of the devil echo the Wisdom of Solomon, Wis 2,24: "through the devil's envy, death entered the world and those who belong to his company experience it." This then recalls the early chapters of Genesis: the lies the devil told Eve in chapter 3 and the murder of Abel by Cain in chapter 4. The devil's lies in particular are the opposite of the truth, the revelation of God, in the person of Jesus.
This notably strong language has caused many problems down the ages leading to anti-semitism. We need to hear it against the background of conflict between the evangelists' community and the reformed and revitalised synagogue. This can be seen in the following chapter with the story of the man born blind, especially Jn 9,22.34. We also need to understand that the evangelist is speaking about the Jewish leaders rather than Jews as a whole. For us, it emphasises the stark choice we ourselves have to make and to hold on to.
That leads into the last part of this increasingly acrimonious exchange. By verse 48, the Jews are hurling insults at Jesus.
Jesus in response seeks to bring together all the strands of this conversation: the importance of keeping his word, the importance of Abraham rejoicing to see the day of Jesus, the importance of Jesus receiving glory from the Father and manifesting it to the world, as in the Prologue, Jn 1,14.
Finally, in verse 58, Jesus makes the absolute claim "I am". This needs to be heard in light of the earlier "I am" statements that we have read, especially 8,28.
At this stage, the Jews seek to stone him. In due course when his hour has come (8,20), they will cry out for his crucifixion, Jn 19,6.